Gimme Truth

A recent study from the American Journal of Public Health announced that The Truth, the ultra-hip, not-afraid-to-use-body-bags-in-its-ads anti-tobacco campaign is actually working. Ironically, though, just as it looks like this data has been crunched, the funding behind it might disappear.

Between 1997 and 2002, the percentage of teens who smoke dropped from 28 to 18. The study credits The Truth with about 22 percent of the drop, or about 300,000 teens. The study claims that teen smoking was falling before the ad campaign, but that the rate at which it decreased was noticeably steeper after the ads began.

So, great -- the ads are working! Kids are getting wise and smoking less. Maybe it's not just The Truth – it could be state sponsored anti-smoking programs, stricter rules on underage cigarette purchasing, fewer places with smoking sections, or any number of other non-smoking friendly rulings since 2000. If the ads are working, though, they should definitely continue, right?

Well, here's the catch. The Truth campaign was funded by part of the $206 billion settlement between big tobacco companies and 46 states in 1998. The settlement was meant to try and recover some of the billions of tax dollars spent on public health care for all the sick smokers, as well as various smoking cessation programs and future concerns.

Some of that settlement money went to the American Legacy Foundation, the parent company for The Truth. They spent about $59 million last year and gave another $38 million in grants. They expected the money to keep coming in as the tobacco companies continue to pay off their debt to the states.

Unfortunately for anti-tobacco activists, though, the settlement had a safety clause in it for the tobacco companies -- they were allowed to stop paying after five years if they could prove they were losing customers.

So, if the campaigns work, or people actually wise up and realize you can get sick and even die from smoking, then inevitably fewer people are going to be lighting up. But when that happens, the tobacco companies lose customers and this means their executives can just close up their wallets and head on back to their factories and board rooms. Where's the logic there?

Perhaps the problem with The Truth is that they actually thought about their campaign. Their ads weren't talking down to teens, or scaring the crap out of them, a la the latest anti-drug ads. They were culture jamming. They were staging die-ins at company headquarters and inspiring kids to talk to each other about what actually goes on in the business and marketing worlds. They were using marketing to break through the tobacco companies' marketing.

I remember about 5 years ago, I got a static-free bag full of Truth swag at Scribble Jam in Cincinnati, a big underground hip-hop event. It was full of anti-smoking stencils to use at your discretion on whatever billboard or wall you felt inclined to decorate, a camouflage bandanna, and various other stuff. It was swanky and original, and it felt underground, just like the hip hop. It was right near the beginning of the campaign, and it felt like they were just trying to create a street name, to make people wonder what "The Truth" was, where all the tags had come from. Just like Shepard Fairey's "Obey" caught on, The Truth was based on street-cred.

Well, I'm not sure the tags and bandannas campaign caught on, but their groundbreaking anti-commercials and minimalist ads in magazines worked. Their web site gets over 250,000 unique visitors a month. They run an informal street team, telling potential members they can be a part of a "roots revolution," that they can "be among the first generation to refuse to be snowed under by the tobacco industry."

Just as The Truth campaign has inspired teens to reach out and start their own anti-tobacco programs in their states, it turns out their funding is in danger too. Massachusetts and Florida, states with programs once considered cutting-edge models for the rest of the United States, have cut their budgets dramatically in the past couple of years. The governor of Mississippi wants to take the $20 million set aside for their anti-smoking program and put it toward the state Medicaid program.

While tobacco companies like Philip Morris run their own anti-smoking campaigns, they're also spending $12.5 billion a year on cigarette advertisements and promotions. Meanwhile, they've spent just $600 million on their anti-smoking campaigns and youth development grants since 1998, with markedly less influence than The Truth.

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